Pleasing Quebecers is key to Tory dream of majority rule

Par Norma Greenaway

2006 textes seuls

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his untested Conservative team entered a new phase of their on-the-job training yesterday, fuelled by a lean agenda aimed at swiftly building the party's governing credibility, especially in the eyes of Quebecers.
Make no mistake. Positioning the party to win majority power is the name of the game from now until the writ is dropped for the next federal election.
The strategy is vintage Harper -- someone who likes to "think a few steps ahead," as he has put it.
The Conservatives' carefully constructed agenda -- laid out in thin detail in the minority government's inaugural throne speech -- is familiar to anyone who paid attention to the Jan. 23 federal election campaign and its aftermath.
- Cleaning up government.
- Cutting the GST.
- Cracking down on crime.
- Choice in child care.
- Guaranteeing medical wait times.
The five priorities have been repeated ad nauseam, along with Mr. Harper's add-on priority promise to fix the "fiscal imbalance" with the provinces.
The latter pledge, stressed anew in the throne speech, is largely credited with the Tories' stunning 10-seat breakthrough in Quebec -- the province the Harper circle now views as the best and fastest route to majority government.
The party finished second in more than half of the province's 75 seats.
Indeed, the government was at pains in yesterday's throne speech to reach out to Quebecers. Aside from confirming its promise to permit Quebec a role at UNESCO, it pledged to work with the provincial government "in a spirit of mutual respect and collaboration to advance the aspirations of Quebecers."
Familiarity of refrain, however, guarantees neither legislative nor political success for the Conservative government.
There is no smooth sailing in a minority government.
The Tories are bucking inexperience on their own benches, as well as the ambitions and agendas of three rival parties, all of which are further to the left on the political spectrum.
Opposition and Independent MPs outnumber the Tories 173-125.
Mr. Harper, who promised during the election campaign to usher in a new era of honest, ethical government, also is hobbled in the eyes of some by what they see as a couple of unethical cabinet picks.
There still is fury in Conservative circles over the appointments to cabinet of David Emerson, a former Liberal cabinet minister, and Michael Fortier, an unelected Tory political operative in Quebec whom Mr. Harper named to the Senate.
A big question hanging over the government is whether Mr. Harper, a control freak who has operated largely as a one-man message machine since the election, will let his cabinet ministers off the short, to non-existent leashes they have been on since they were sworn in a month ago.
It's a no-brainer that governing cannot be limited to five priorities.
Indeed, the political health of the Harper government will likely rest more on its response to Canada's deadly and changing military role in Afghanistan, and to unpredictable crises such as tsunamis in Southeast Asia, an outbreak of mad cow disease and ice storms Ontario and Quebec.
On the legislative front, the opposition parties are well aware of the parliamentary tools at their disposal to amend, slow or thwart Mr. Harper's program.
They are vowing to do what they can to force the government to compromise, at least on hot files such as child care and tax cuts.
But Mr. Harper is blessed with breathing room. There is no serious threat of an early election, given the Liberals' focus on getting a new leader, and the Bloc Quebecois' declining electoral fortunes in Quebec.
Mr. Harper is clearly bent on using the space to fulfil two or more of his five key election promises before the House of Commons rises for the summer recess in June.
Progress on those fronts, according to Tory thinking, would give the party the credibility it needs to hang on to the voters who gave it the nod in January, and also broaden its support.

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